She smiled at our amazement. “Isn’t it lovely?” she asked quietly.
“It’s … beautiful. Such a peaceful room,” Nettle managed to say.
I tried to find my tongue. I’d been holding Molly’s fancy at a distance; now I had stepped into her delusion. The stupid wanting that I thought I had smothered roared up like a fire through charred twigs. A baby. How sweet would it have been, to have our own little baby here, where I could watch him grow, where I could see Molly be mother to our child? I feigned a cough and rubbed my face. I walked to the lamp and examined the painted flowers on the screen with a scrutiny they didn’t merit.
Molly went on talking to Nettle. “When Patience was alive, she showed me this cradle. It was up in the attic. She’d had it made in the years when she and Chivalry lived here, when she dreamed it was still possible she might conceive. All those years, it has waited. It was far too heavy for me to move by myself, but I called Revel and showed it to him. And he had it carried down here for me, and once the wood was polished it was such a lovely thing that we decided we really needed to make the whole room as fine a nursery as the cradle deserved.
“Oh, and come here, just look at these trunks. Revel found them in a different attic, but isn’t it wonderful how close a match the wood is? He thought that perhaps the oak was grown right here at Withywoods, which could explain why the color is so close to the cradle. This one has blankets, some of wool for winter months and some lighter, for the spring. And this entire trunk, I’m shocked to say, is all clothing for the baby. I had not realized how much I’d actually sewn for him until Revel suggested we put it all in one place. There are different sizes, of course. I wasn’t as foolish as that, as to make all the little gowns for a newborn.”
And on. The words poured out of Molly, as if she had longed for months to be able to speak openly about her hopes for her child. And Nettle looked at her mother and smiled and nodded. They sat on the couch and took clothing from the trunk and laid it out to look at it. I stood and watched them. I think that for a moment, Nettle was caught in her mother’s dream. Or perhaps, I thought to myself, it was the same longing they shared, Molly for a child she was long past bearing and Nettle for a child she was forbidden to bear. I saw Nettle take up a little gown and lay it across her breast as she exclaimed, “So tiny! I had forgotten how small babies were; it has been years since Hearth was born.”
“Oh, Hearth, he was almost the biggest of my babies. Only Just was larger. The things I’d made for Hearth, he outgrew within a few months.”
“I remember that!” Nettle exclaimed. “His little feet hung out the bottoms of his gown and we’d cover him, only to have him kick all his blankets off a moment later.”
Purest envy choked me. They were gone, both of them, back to a time when I hadn’t existed in either of their lives, back to a cozy, noisy home full of children. I did not begrudge Molly her years of marriage to Burrich. He had been a good man for her. But this was like a slow knife turning in me, to watch them recollect an experience I would never have. I stared at them, the outsider again. And then, as if a curtain had lifted or a door opened, I realized that I excluded myself. I went over and sat down beside them. Molly lifted a tiny pair of knit boots from the chest. She smiled and offered them to me. Without a word, I took them. They scarcely filled the palm of my hand. I tried to imagine the tiny foot that would go into one, and could not.
I looked over at Molly. There were lines at the corners of her eyes and lines framing her mouth. Her rosy full lips had faded to pale-pink arcs. I suddenly saw her not as Molly, but as a woman of some fifty-odd years. Her lush, dark hair had thinned, and gray streaked it. But she looked at me with such hope and love, her head turned just slightly to one side. And I saw something else in her eyes, something that had not been there ten years ago. Confidence in my love. The wariness that had tinged our relationship was gone, worn to nothing by our last decade together. She finally knew that I loved her, that I would always put her first. I had finally earned her trust.
I looked down at the little booties in my hand and slipped my two fingers inside them. I stood them up on my palm. I danced them a couple of steps on my hand. She reached to still my fingers, and slid the soft gray boots away. “Soon enough,” she told me, and leaned against me. Nettle looked up at me and such gratitude shone in her eyes that I felt I had suddenly won a battle I had not even known I was fighting.
I cleared my throat and managed to speak without huskiness. “I want a hot cup of tea,” I told them, and Molly sat up, exclaiming, “You know, that would be exactly what I want right now, myself.”